Twelve O'Clock High

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Twelve O'Clock High
File:Twelve O'Clock High poster.jpg
Theatrical release poster
Directed by Henry King
Produced by Darryl F. Zanuck
Screenplay by Henry King (uncredited)
Sy Bartlett
Beirne Lay, Jr.
Based on Twelve O'Clock High
(1948 novel) 
by Sy Bartlett
Beirne Lay, Jr.
Starring Gregory Peck
Hugh Marlowe
Gary Merrill
Millard Mitchell
Dean Jagger
Music by Alfred Newman
Cinematography Leon Shamroy
Edited by Barbara McLean
Distributed by Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation
Release dates
  • December 21, 1949 (1949-12-21) (Los Angeles)
  • January 26, 1950 (1950-01-26) (New York City)
Running time
132 minutes
Country United States
Language English
Box office $3,225,000 (U.S. rentals)[1]

Twelve O'Clock High is a 1949 American war film about aircrews in the United States Army's Eighth Air Force who flew daylight bombing missions against Nazi Germany and occupied France during the early days of American involvement in World War II, including a thinly disguised version of the notorious Black Thursday strike against Schweinfurt. The film was adapted by Sy Bartlett, Henry King (uncredited) and Beirne Lay, Jr. from the 1948 novel 12 O'Clock High, also by Bartlett and Lay. It was directed by King and stars Gregory Peck, Hugh Marlowe, Gary Merrill, Millard Mitchell and Dean Jagger.

The film was nominated for four Academy Awards and won two: Dean Jagger for Best Actor in a Supporting Role, and Thomas T. Moulton for Best Sound Recording.[2] In 1998, Twelve O'Clock High was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant".


File:Twelve O'clock High Gregory Peck.jpg
Publicity shot of Gregory Peck in Twelve O'Clock High (1949)

In 1949, former U.S. Army Air Force officer Harvey Stovall (Dean Jagger) is vacationing in Great Britain when he spots a familiar Toby Jug in an antique shop window and is told that it came from Archbury, where Stovall served with the 918th Bomb Group during World War II. Convinced that it is the same jug, he buys it and journeys to the now-abandoned airfield.

Stovall then remembers the events of 1942, having recently arrived and been thrown into action, the 918th has gained the reputation of a "hard luck group" suffering from poor morale. One reason is the strategy of daylight precision bombing of German targets and the corresponding losses to anti-aircraft fire and enemy aircraft. In addition, their commander, Colonel Keith Davenport (Gary Merrill), has become too close to his men to instill adequate discipline. When he is ordered to fly a mission at low altitude to increase accuracy, Davenport rushes to headquarters and confronts his friend, Brigadier General Frank Savage (Gregory Peck) the Assistant Chief of Staff for Operations. His behavior prompts Savage to go to the commanding general of VIII Bomber Command (Millard Mitchell) and tell him that that he feels Davenport may not be fit to command. Following a disastrous mission in which the 918th loses seven bombers, General Pritchard relieves Davenport of command and the 918th is given to Savage.

In order to address discipline problems, Savage deals with everyone so harshly that the men begin to detest him. Savage fires Lieutenant Colonel Ben Gately (Hugh Marlowe), the popular Air Exec, busting him down to an airplane commander; and replaces him with the rough-and-ready Major Cobb, a superb combat leader. Upset by the contrast of Savage's stern leadership with Davenport's easygoing ways, all of the 918th's pilots apply for transfers. Savage asks the Group Adjutant, Major Stovall, to delay processing their applications to buy him some time. A former pilot during World War I and an attorney in civilian life between the wars, Stovall knows how to use organizational "red tape” to his advantage. When the 918th resumes combat flying with greater success after hasty refresher training, the men begin to change their minds, especially after Savage leads them on a mission in which the 918th is the only group to bomb the target and have all of the aircraft return safely. Savage also acquires a surrogate son in Lieutenant Jesse Bishop (Robert Patten), a Medal of Honor recipient who is Savage's eyes and ears among the combat aircrews.

Word gets around that Pritchard personally reprimanded Savage for his claim of "radio malfunction" as an excuse to ignore the recall order. But rather than incurring any form of punishment for this disobedience, Savage persuades Pritchard to recommend the group for a Distinguished Unit Citation. When the Inspector General arrives to investigate the unrest, Savage is packing ready to go, but the pilots withdraw their requests to transfer. Savage also softens his attitude towards the men as he becomes more closely involved with them. At the same time, Savage and Gately are reconciled after the general learns Gately flew three missions with a fractured vertebra he received when he was forced to ditch his bomber, the Leper Colony, in the English Channel due to battle damage.

With enemy resistance intensifying as the air war advances deeper into Germany, missions become longer and riskier, and many of Savage's best men are shot down or killed. Pritchard tries to get Savage to return to a staff job at VIII Bomber Command, but Savage refuses because he feels that the 918th is not ready to stand up without him yet. Reluctantly, Pritchard leaves him in command. However, after a particularly brutal mission, Savage's iron will cracks. On the day of the first daylight bombing raid on Berlin, he finds himself physically unable to haul himself up into his B-17. The redeemed Ben Gately takes his place as lead pilot and strike commander for the mission. While waiting for the group’s return, Savage becomes catatonic. Only as they return to Archbury does Savage regain his composure and fall asleep.

The story then returns to 1949 and Stovall pedals away on his bicycle.


File:Twelve O'clock High.jpg
From left to right: Gary Merrill, Gregory Peck and Dean Jagger

As appearing in screen credits (main roles identified):[3]

Historical counterparts of characters and places

Brigadier General Frank Savage (played by Gregory Peck) was created as a composite of several group commanders but the primary inspiration was Colonel Frank A. Armstrong, who commanded the 306th Bomb Group on which the 918th was modeled.[4] The name "Savage" was inspired by Armstrong's Cherokee heritage.[who?] In addition to his work with the 306th, which lasted only six weeks and consisted primarily of rebuilding the chain of command within the group, Armstrong had earlier performed a similar task with the 97th Bomb Group and many of the training and disciplinary scenes in Twelve O'Clock High derive from that experience.

Towards the end of the film, the near-catatonic battle fatigue that General Savage suffered and the harrowing missions that led up to it were inspired by the experiences of Brigadier General Newton Longfellow,[4] although the symptoms of the breakdown were not based on any real-life event, but were intended to portray the effects of intense stress experienced by many airmen.

Major General Pritchard (played by Millard Mitchell) was modeled on that of the VIII Bomber Command's first commander, Maj. Gen. Ira C. Eaker.[5]

Colonel Keith Davenport (played by Gary Merrill) was based on the first commander of the 306th Bomb Group, Colonel Charles B. Overacker, nicknamed "Chip."[5] Of all the personalities portrayed in Twelve O'Clock High, that of Colonel Davenport most closely parallels his true-life counterpart. The early scene in which Davenport confronts Savage about a mission order was a close recreation of an actual event, as was his relief.

Major (later Lieutenant Colonel) Harvey Stovall (played by Dean Jagger), who is a former World War I U.S. Army Air Service pilot who has returned to active duty as a non-flying adjutant, was modeled on William Howard Stovall, a World War I flying ace who returned to active duty as a Major in the U.S. Army Air Forces the week following Pearl Harbor and served as the non-flying Deputy Chief of Staff for Personnel for the 8th Air Force in England for his World War I comrades, Brigadier General Frank O'Driscoll Hunter and General Carl Spaatz.

2nd Lieutenant Jesse Bishop (played by Robert Patten), who belly lands in the B-17 next to the runway at the beginning of the film and was nominated for the Medal of Honor, had his true life counterpart in Second Lieutenant John C. Morgan.[5] The description of Bishop's fight to control the bomber after his pilot was hit in the head by fragments of a 20 mm cannon shell is taken almost verbatim from Morgan's Medal of Honor citation. Details may be found in The 12 O'Clock High Logbook. Robert Patten had been an USAAF Navigator in World War II, the only member of the cast with aircrew experience.

Sergeant McIllhenny (played by Robert Arthur) was drawn from a member of the 306th Bomb Group, Sgt Donald Bevan,[5] a qualified gunner who was assigned ground jobs including part-time driver for the commander of his squadron. Bevan had received publicity as a "stowaway gunner" (similar to McIllhenny in the film), even though in reality he had been invited to fly missions. Like McIllhenny, he proved to be a "born gunner."

The “tough guy" character Major Joe Cobb (played by John Kellogg) was inspired by Colonel Paul Tibbets who had flown B-17s with Colonel Armstrong.[5][Note 1] Tibbetts was initially approved as the film’s technical advisor in February 1949, but was replaced shortly after by Colonel John H. deRussy, a former operations officer for the 305th Bomb Group.[6]

Route maps seen in the film indicate that the Archbury airfield was very near the city of Aylesbury, although the 306th BG, upon which the 918th was loosely modeled, was located at RAF Thurleigh.[citation needed]


File:Twelve O'Clock High crash landing.jpg
Paul Mantz deliberately crash-lands B-17G AAF Ser. No. 44-83592 at Ozark AAF, Alabama, in June 1949 for the filming of Twelve O'Clock High.[7]

According to their files, Twentieth-Century Fox paid "$100,000 outright for the [rights to the] book plus up to $100,000 more in escalator and book club clauses." Darryl Zanuck was apparently convinced to pay this high price when he heard that William Wyler was interested in purchasing it for Paramount. Even then, Zanuck only went through with the deal in October 1947 when he was certain that the United States Air Force would support the production.[8] The film made use of actual combat footage during the battle scenes, including some shot by the Luftwaffe.[8] A good deal of the production was filmed on Eglin Air Force Base and its associated auxiliary fields near Fort Walton Beach, Florida.[9]

Screenwriters Bartlett and Lay drew on their own wartime experiences with Eighth Air Force bomber units. At the Eighth Air Force headquarters, Bartlett had worked closely with Colonel Armstrong, who was the primary model for the character General Savage. The film's 918th Bomber Group was modeled primarily on the 306th because that group remained a significant part of the Eighth Air Force throughout the war in Europe.[Note 2]

Veterans of the heavy bomber campaign frequently cite Twelve O'Clock High as the only Hollywood film that accurately captured their combat experiences.[10] Along with the 1948 film Command Decision, it marked a turning away from the optimistic, morale-boosting style of wartime films and toward a grittier realism that deals more directly with the human costs of war. Both films deal with the realities of daylight precision bombing without fighter escort, the basic Army Air Forces doctrine at the start of World War II (prior to the arrival of long range Allied fighter aircraft like the P-51 Mustang). As producers, writers Lay and Bartlett re-used major plot elements of Twelve O'Clock High in later films featuring the U.S. Air Force, the 1950s-era Toward the Unknown and the early 1960s Cold War-era A Gathering of Eagles, respectively.

Paul Mantz, Hollywood's leading stunt pilot, was paid the then-unprecedented sum of $4,500 to crash-land a B-17 bomber for one early scene in the film.[11] Frank Tallman, Mantz' partner in Tallmantz Aviation, wrote in his autobiography that, while many B-17s had been landed by one pilot, as far as he knew this flight was the first time that a B-17 ever took off with only one pilot and no other crew; nobody was sure that it could be done.“[Note 3] The footage was used again in the 1962 film The War Lover.[14]

Locations for creating the bomber airfield at RAF Archbury were scouted by director Henry King, flying his own private aircraft some 16,000 miles in February and March 1949. King visited Eglin AFB on March 8, 1949 and found an ideal location for principal photography several miles north of the main base at its Eglin AFB Auxiliary Field No. 3, better known as Duke Field, where the mock installation with 15 buildings (including a World War II control tower) were constructed to simulate RAF Archbury.[5][15] The film's technical advisor, Colonel John deRussy, was stationed at Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama at the time, and suggested Ozark Army Air Field near Daleville, Alabama (now known as Cairns Army Airfield, adjacent to Fort Rucker).[15] King chose Cairns as the location for filming B-17 takeoffs and landings, including the B-17 belly-landing sequence, since the light-colored runways at Eglin did not match wartime runways in England which had been black to make them less visible to enemy aircraft. When the crew arrived at Cairns, it was also considered as an "ideal for shots of Harvey Stovall reminiscing about his World War II service" since the field was somewhat overgrown.[5][16]

Additional background photography was shot at RAF Barford St John, a satellite station of RAF Croughton[citation needed] in Oxfordshire, England. Officially the airfield is still under Ministry of Defence ownership following its closure in the late 1990s as a Communications Station linked to the since closed RAF Upper Heyford. Other locations around Eglin AFB and Fort Walton Beach also served as secondary locations for filming.[17] The crew used 12 B-17s for filming which were pulled from QB-17 drones used at Eglin and other B-17s from depot locations in Alabama and New Mexico. Since some of the aircraft had been used in the 1946 Bikini atomic experiments and absorbed high levels of radioactivity, they could only be used for shooting for limited periods.[5]

Twelve O'Clock High was in production from late April to early July 1949.[18] Although originally planned to be shot in Technicolor, it was instead shot in black and white, allowing the inclusion of actual combat footage by Allied and Luftwaffe cameras.[8]


Twelve O'Clock High premiered in Los Angeles on December 21, 1949, and opened in New York on January 26, 1950.[19] It went into general release in February 1950.[20] An influential review by Bosley Crowther of The New York Times was indicative of many contemporary reviews. He noted that the film focused more on the human element than the aircraft or machinery of war.[21] The Times picked Twelve O'Clock High as one of the 10 Best Films of 1949 and, in later years, it rated the film as one of the "Best 1000" of all time.[22]

After attending the premiere, the Commander of the Strategic Air Command, General Curtis LeMay, told the authors that he "couldn't find anything wrong with it." It was required viewing at all the U.S. service academies, college/university Air Force Reserve Officer Training Corps detachments, Air Force Officer Training School, the U.S. Navy's former Aviation Officer Candidate School, and the Coast Guard Officer Candidate School, where it was used as a teaching example for the Situational leadership theory, although not currently used by the USAF. The film is also widely used in both the military and civilian worlds to teach the principles of leadership.[23]

In its initial release, the film took in $3,225,000 in rentals in the U.S. alone.[24]


Twelve O'Clock High won Academy Awards for Best Actor in a Supporting Role for Dean Jagger and Best Sound Recording. It was nominated for Best Actor in a Leading Role for Gregory Peck and Best Picture.[2] In addition, Peck received the New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Actor, and the film was nominated for Best Picture by the National Board of Review.[22]

In 1998, the film was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant".[25][26]

Meaning of the title

The term "twelve o'clock high" refers to the practice of calling out the positions of attacking enemy aircraft by reference to an imaginary clock face, with the bomber at the center. The terms "high" (above the bomber), "level" (at the same altitude as the bomber) and "low" (below the bomber) further refine the location of the enemy. Thus "twelve o'clock high" meant the attacker was approaching from directly ahead and above. This location was preferred by German fighter pilots because, until the introduction of the Bendix chin turret in the B-17G model, the nose of the B-17 was the most lightly armed and vulnerable part of the bomber. Enemy fighter aircraft diving from above were also more difficult targets for the B-17 gunners due to their high closing speeds.

Bartlett’s wife, actress Ellen Drew, named the story after hearing Bartlett and Lay discuss German fighter tactics, which usually involved head-on attacks from "twelve o’clock high".[5]

Radio and television

Gregory Peck repeated his role as General Savage on a Screen Guild Players radio broadcast on September 7, 1950.[8]

Twelve O'Clock High later became a television series, also called Twelve O'Clock High, that premiered on the ABC network in 1964 and ran for three seasons. Robert Lansing played General Savage. At the end of the first season, Lansing was replaced by Paul Burke, who played Colonel Joseph Anson "Joe" Gallagher, a character loosely based on Ben Gately from the novel.[27] Much of the combat footage seen in the film was reused in the television series.

Many of the television show's ground scenes were filmed at the Chino, California, airport, which had been used for training Army pilots during the war, and where a replica of a control tower, typical of the type seen at an 8th Air Force airfield in England, was built. The airfield itself was used in the immediate postwar period as a dump for soon-to-be-scrapped fighters and bombers and was used for the penultimate scene in The Best Years of Our Lives when Dana Andrews relives his wartime experiences and goes on to rebuild his life.[28]



  1. Tibbetts was also the pilot of the B-29 "Enola Gay" which dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima at the end of the war.
  2. Note that 918 is 3 times 306.
  3. This allegation is at odds with both 20th Century-Fox press releases made during production and with research done by Duffin and Matheis for The 12 O'Clock High Logbook. Martin Caidin describes a 1961 solo flight by Gregory Board of a B-17 in his chapter, "The Amazing Mr. Board", in Everything But the Flak.[12] Art Lacey also flew a B-17 solo in 1947, although this was not well known due to its being written off officially as weather damage when he crashed it.[13]


  1. "The Top Box Office Hits of 1950." Variety, January 3, 1951.
  2. 2.0 2.1 "The 22nd Academy Awards (1950) Nominees and Winners." Retrieved: August 18, 2011.
  3. "Twelve O'Clock High Full credits." IMDb. Retrieved: October 21, 2009.
  4. 4.0 4.1 Bowman, Martin. "12 O'Clock High." Osprey Publishing, 1999.
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 5.3 5.4 5.5 5.6 5.7 5.8 Correll, John T. "The Real Twelve O’Clock High." The Air Force Association via, Volume 94, Issue 1, January 2011.
  6. Duffin and Matheis 2005, p. 61.
  7. "12 O'Clock High." Aero Vintage, January 6, 2008. Retrieved: October 21, 2009.
  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 8.3 "Notes: Twelve O'Clock High." Turner Classic Movies. Retrieved: October 21, 2009.
  9. "Filming locations: Twelve O'Clock High." IMDb. Retrieved: October 21, 2009.
  10. Duffin and Matheis 2005, p. 87.
  11. "Trivia: Twelve O'Clock High." Turner Classic Movies. Retrieved: October 21, 2009.
  12. "Gregory Board." IMDb. Retrieved: May 9, 2013.
  13. Cheesman. Shannon. "Boast + adult beverages = a B-17 on the roof.", June 16, 2010. Retrieved: February 5, 2012.
  14. "The War Lover (1962).", October 28, 2007. Retrieved: December 15, 2012.
  15. 15.0 15.1 Orriss 1984, p. 149.
  16. Duffin and Matheis 2005, pp. 65–67.
  17. "Locations: Twelve O'Clock High (1949)." IMDb. Retrieved: October 21, 2009.
  18. "Overview: Twelve O'Clock High." Turner Classic Movies. Retrieved: October 21, 2009.
  19. "Release dates: Twelve O'Clock High (1949)." IMDb. Retrieved: October 21, 2009.
  20. "Misc. notes: Twelve O'Clock High." Turner Classic Movies. Retrieved: October 21, 2009.
  21. Crowther, Bosley. "Twelve O'Clock High (1949)." The New York Times, January 28, 1950. Retrieved: March 1, 2011.
  22. 22.0 22.1 "Awards." Allmovie. Retrieved: October 21, 2009.
  23. Correll, John T. "The Real Twelve O’Clock High." Air Force Magazine, Vol. 94, No. 1, January 2011. Retrieved: February 7, 2014.
  24. "Business data: Twelve O'Clock High (1949)." IMDb. Retrieved: October 21, 2009.
  25. "Awards: Twelve O'Clock High (1949)." IMDb. Retrieved: October 21, 2009.
  26. "Hooray for Hollywood - Librarian Names 25 More Films to National Registry." Library of Congress, 1998.
  27. Duffin and Matheis
  28. Orriss 1984, p. 122.


  • Army Air Forces Aid Society. The Official Guide to the Army Air Forces. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1944.
  • Caidin, Martin. Black Thursday. New York: E.P. Dutton & Co., Inc., 1960. ISBN 0-553-26729-9.
  • Caidin, Martin. Everything But the Flak. New York: Duell, Sloan and Pearce, 1964.
  • Caidin, Martin. Flying Forts: The B-17 in World War II. New York: Meredith Press, 1968.
  • Dolan, Edward F. Jr. Hollywood Goes to War. London: Bison Books, 1985. ISBN 0-86124-229-7.
  • Duffin, Allan T. and Paul Matheis. The 12 O'Clock High Logbook. Albany, Georgia: Bearmanor Media, 2005. ISBN 1-59393-033-X.
  • Hardwick, Jack and Ed Schnepf. "A Viewer's Guide to Aviation Movies." The Making of the Great Aviation Films. General Aviation Series, Volume 2, 1989.
  • Kerrigan, Evans E. American War Medals and Decorations. New York: Viking Press, 1964. ISBN 0-670-12101-0.
  • Lay, Beirne Jr. and Sy Bartlett. 12 O'Clock High. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1948 (Reprint 1989). ISBN 0-942397-16-9.
  • "Medal of Honor Recipients, World War II (M-S)." United States Army Center of Military History.
  • Murphy, Edward F. Heroes of WWII. Novato, California: Presidio Press, 1990. ISBN 0-345-37545-9.
  • Orriss, Bruce. When Hollywood Ruled the Skies: The Aviation Film Classics of World War II. Hawthorn, California: Aero Associates Inc., 1984. ISBN 0-9613088-0-X.
  • Rubin, Steven Jay. "Chapter 3, Twelve O'clock High." Combat Films: American Realism, 1945–2010. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland and Company, 2011. ISBN 978-0-7864-5892-9.

External links